The UK Government made its long-standing opposition to boycotts real when it published new rules to all public-sector contracting authorities – such as local councils and NHS Trusts – in England and Wales, stressing that boycotts on the basis of nationality are illegal under EU and World Trade Organisation rules. At the same time, the Government is holding a consultation on stopping anti-Israel divestment by public sector pension funds too.
At first, anti-Israel organisations reacted loudly and angrily, claiming that the guidance represented a huge step that would stop their campaign in its tracks. But it was too late – the guidance was announced and published on the same day – so they quickly had to change their tactics. Overnight, instead of complaining that the new rules were too strong, they instead started claiming that they were actually really weak.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign pushed this new position in an attempt to muddy the waters. Their parliamentary ally, Labour MP Richard Burden, managed to secure a debate in Westminster Hall with the title “Local Government: Ethical Procurement” on 15 March.
The speakers in the debate fell into a few categories. Anti-Israel MPs, like Mr Burden, Andy Slaughter, Tommy Shephard and Alan Duncan both attacked the guidance as being unfairly strong and simultaneously tried to say that it wasn’t strong enough and that councils could ignore it.
Some MPs didn’t express any hostility to Israel but didn’t like the guidance because they support the principle that councils should be able to boycott other countries – these MPs included Tristram Hunt and Justin Madders.
A brave few MPs supported the new rules outright: Chloe Smith, Matthew Offord and Robert Jenrick.
When Cabinet Office Minister John Penrose summed up at the end of the debate, he stressed that the Government wasn’t backing down and would continue to oppose boycotts of Israel.
So the boycotters are now playing a game of Chicken, trying to convince councils to press ahead with an unlawful policy and hope that the Government backs down. All signs suggest that the Government is ready to take on the council boycotts from now on.